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Water Messiah 2

When a Cholera outbreak happens, everybody turns into a ‘WatSan’ officer, even the medics. But even under everyday circumstances, 70% of all of my activity has a ‘WatSan’ agenda. Water supply is our biggest issue.

When a Cholera outbreak happens, everybody turns into a ‘WatSan’ officer, even the medics. But even under everyday circumstances, 70% of all of my activity has a ‘WatSan’ agenda. Water supply is our biggest issue. The stuff we can do is all in hand (preparation of pit Latrines, soakaways, etc) is arranged around a bag of cement which we might or might not get on the next plane if we don’t need so much - say - polio vaccine, and go without potatoes in our diet. But cement is heavy. I want to show Ajoy, while he is visiting, the town Water Tower. I have been told that our remit at the moment is to provide support for Lankien’s water, but the town have abused this water-tower that MSF originally helped to set-up. Electricity is witchcraft here, but if it is available, why not take it? Whether you understand it or not… that is the way people have grown up here. Take it while it’s there. Tomorrow it will be gone.

Lankien Waste Disposal System

So the generator has been burnt-out, but people have had some good discos. Stereos, market-stall lighting, and other gear have brought folk temporary affluence and amusement. They are now sheepish about asking MSF to fix it so the town can survive the dry season. The valves are sticking – obviously bent, in the little Yanmar. This much I have seen. One solution would be to carry the cylinder-head on foot across to the Pathai Bridge swamp (70 miles), then truck it to Juba, then order parts, find a reliable (English-speaking) workshop in a country with no postal system; keep track of it; and expect it back? Ever? I think not.

I am very frustrated by this, as it means that the town are using all of our water. The dry season is upon us. Lankien itself always smells of defacation in certain parts, and we always have to step around it in our flip-flops. Human faeces lying around the village dries, and dissolves into the dust. The wind whips dust up into storms. We are breathing it all the time. 24/7. Water is scarce. But Ajoy, it seems, has the authority to OK Water Tower fixing. It will be a good result for his visit, so we start investigating.

It is great to have Ajoy’s authority to be able to fix long-term problems, but I am limited by my detailed supply-orientated schedules. Up to now I have been told to leave the Town Water Tower, but I reckon my years improvising electrical, plumbing, and mechanical tinkering could come in useful here. It is clear that no-one else within several hundred miles knows any more than me, at least. There is potential for high impact, with minimal reliance on supply. Ajoy sees it, too. In my naivete, I expect that Ajoy knows something of the spec of the borehole pump deep underground, of the complex control electronics, etc. Nothing. So it falls to me, and before I know it, I am in too deep to back out…

Thomas Chuol Weictuor cleaning the Water Tower

The Tower is a grand metal structure. Very out-of-place in the little bush village of Lankien, but a potential godsend to relieve our impending Water crisis in the clinic. It has not worked for many months. The water comes up from the submerged electric borehole pump 200 feet down, and by two and a half inch pipe which runs across the ground and some 40 feet up to the giant steel tank. There is a trap-door in the top of the tank, for access, and from there I can get inside with a ‘technician’ from the village who, reeking of Cong (the local sorghum wine), I set to work clearing the mountains of dust brought up into the tank by the borehole water. This is not a healthy borehole. But it will do for a while if we can fix it.

Deep subterranean Dust

I’m sure, though, that the pipes are OK. We have already undone the inspection cover on the pipe from the borehole. A stream of water came out, so I ascertained that there had been a head of water in the pipe, some way up to the Tower. When I sucked, there was an up-and-down wave detectable by draught, and clearly vacuum from the borehole end. Suction means presence of water, right?

Back in the shack on the ground, which houses the burnt old generator, there is a control-box. The locals look at it like it’s an alien ready to burst out of somebody’s chest. Inside is a series of relays and contact breakers. Complicated. But I’ve seen worse. Problem is, power to test it. Everything stops. No power. This is the way it is in Lankien. Slow. The day grinds to a halt. In the back of my mind are questions, too: ‘Is it three-phase or single?’, ‘Why this dizzying array of breaker switches?’

A Dizzying Array of Spaghetti and Breaker Switches

But people are interested. Suddenly I am tapped on the shoulder through the crowd of pushing and pensive onlookers (all men…?) by a boy. I cannot understand what he is saying: ‘Machina, machina’, pointing to a tall youngish guy, coming through the crowd. Funnily enough, he is called Gai. He introduces me to the Lankien Electrical Corporation, in the form of a Jiang Deng Chinese diesel generator which, like all such things here, is dodgy beyond recognition. The alternator itself, a huge drum (powerful, hopefully), has what is left of a fusebox on top with wires sprouting-out, twisted together and wrappes in bits of old carrier-bag for insulation. This is standard Nyirol wiring. ‘Um, Danger: High Voltage’.

Malow, of course, is at my shoulder. I sent for him as soon as it got technical. Teaching has to be on the job, because of the language barrier. I send him to get our two long extension leads from the log store, and before we know it, things are connected the hundred metres or so across the market place.

But the voltage is too high. Gai’s mad machine is knocking-out 350 volts of power, wires hanging-off, not governed, sparking left, right and centre, and it’s just tripping the fuses. I can feel all 350 volts when I touch the metal control box. I earth it with a trigano tent-peg and some wire from the log store. Back to head-scratching and chin-stroking. I set up a chain of sign-language signalmen across to his generator, and tell him to keep coming down, down, down in speed until my tester reads 230v. Fuses are still jumping out. ‘Down, down, down’…

Finally, at 195 volts, the fuses stop tripping. I go out to check, as it seems there is a definite ‘load’ I can sense on the circuit. Ajoy has returned, joined by Mery, our acting PC. I run up the ladder, but already I can hear the rush of water. A few minutes later the market taps start running, and people rush to fill the buckets which have quietly accumulated.

But there are politics. As with so many things here, the taps only partially work. People want to drink the water, which is putrid and full of sand. We could now be held liable for providing this water, or at least have to treat the fallout in the hospital. It may be months before we can motivate the Commissioner’s men to clean the tank. As MSF, we have to try to pass-on responsibility pro-actively. We need to convince the community to hire a proper technician, not me, to set-up the system more permanently; to get a new generator; to know how Water, Electricity, and Mechanics works. These tribesmen, who did survive a childhood of war-time desert-wandering, malnutrition, refugee camps and orphanry, seldom have one of the above skillsets, let-alone all three. At this moment, I am the only person in Nyirol county with a hope of working this rig.

Lankien Electricity Corporation: Gai’s crazy generator

Gai is held in awe simply because of his generator. Like so many others, he does not trust the Commissioner’s word to pay him for the use of the generator to test, and much of the afternoon has been spent brokering a deal of payment which the Commissioner can respect, and that Gai can trust.

So a skilled man will need convincing, but if this show of possibility can be successful, the motivation and obvious need for water, coupled with the drive for the New South Sudan may create a new trust. Surely that’s not too much to ask?

Although my work here seemed only the beginning of a full-on social education project, walking home through the market, it is odd and a bit perverse to be greeted as if I am the Messiah who has brought Water. I was preoccupied with the transience of one-off fixes, but I did fell quite pleased with myself, nevertheless, and the Water-Tower was, afterall, a working demonstration.

Post Script:

As MSF, sometimes our only power in a country is to threaten to withdraw our services. In this situation, if we manage the withdrawal well, we can pass-on services to local people, supporting and training them as necessary. I had various encounters with the Commissioner, and passed on messages of how important it is to hire an engineer who we would support, but who would be here after we have gone. So when Wur turned up in the compound office, I was over the moon… HOORAY!!!